Getting Up Early: An Ode, A Lament

Some mornings, after I have been jarred out of a deep sleep far too early by my watch alarm, which is a booby trap I literally set for myself a few hours before, as I am stumbling around, I think about my friend Nick’s dad. As a young father, Larry worked two full-time jobs—one first-shift and one second-shift. For almost two decades he was out of bed early every morning, no matter what time he got home the previous night. Which is impressive in itself.

The crazy thing about it, though, is his comic-book-worthy superpower worthy of all caps: HE HAS NEVER USED AN ALARM CLOCK. He just woke up, whether he had gotten to bed at 10 a.m. the night before, or 2 a.m. This, to me, is up there with flying or X-ray vision.

I can wrap my head around lots of difficult things, like ultramarathons, carrying a heavy backpack for miles and miles, and coming up with a word starting with Q late in a Scrabble game. But I cannot envision having something important to do the next morning (like work) and drifting off to sleep while thinking, “I’ll just naturally wake up at 6:00 a.m., no problem.”

You may think of yourself as “a morning person” or “not a morning person.” Many of us do. I would love to be a morning person, but as I get older, being a morning person seems to require not staying up late, which I can’t seem to acquire a taste for. Still, every once in a while, I have to or want to do something that requires an early wake-up time, like a race, an early phone meeting, or a day of skiing. And I do what I consider to be my best, which is getting out of bed early and not acting like a big fucking baby about it.

I did a fundraising climb of Mt. Shasta with my friend Robb in 2009. Robb and I went to high school together in Iowa, a place where alpine starts are not so much a part of the culture, probably because mountains are not part of the landscape. Robb had explained to his dad a few weeks before the trip that on snow climbs, you want to be on your way up the mountain when the snow is still frozen, so you often have to get up during the night, as early as 1:00 a.m. or even midnight. Gary, Robb’s dad, listened to this explanation and said, “That is … the dumbest goddamn thing … I have ever heard.”

Every time I have gotten myself out of a sleeping bag on the side of a mountain and started moving extremely early in the morning, I hear Gary’s voice in my head. Because he’s right. I mean, I can get up at 5:00 a.m., or 3:00 a.m., or even 1:00 a.m., when it’s necessary—I just prefer at this point to minimize the number of days in my life when it’s “necessary” and reserve them for “special occasions” of my own choosing. When you wake up that early, you find yourself in a sort of purgatory between night and day, a period of a few hours that is not quite “today” because it still feels like “last night.”

When I was in college, I was a terrible student for a number of reasons, one of which was that I just wasn’t that interested in the stuff I was supposed to be studying. I would put everything off until the last possible day, and then cram for tests in marathon sessions lasting into the wee hours of the morning. This was neither effective nor healthy, and arguably even dumber than getting up at midnight to climb a mountain.

I did a lot of this studying at 24-hour restaurants, commandeering a booth, a carafe of diner coffee, and an ashtray that I gradually filled up with cigarette butts. At one of the restaurants, the Happy Chef in Cedar Falls (RIP), I would be a fly on the wall as the clientele transitioned from the post-bar and late-night weirdos like myself to the retirees who started to line the counter as early as 3:30 a.m., drinking bottomless coffee, having half-conversations with each other, and leaving 25-cent tips for the waitstaff. As the older men started to show up on what was, to them, “Friday morning,” my beliefs that a) it was still Thursday night and b) I had plenty of time to learn the material for my exam began to wane, and I would try to wrap up my efforts and get out of there before I started to feel any more like a vampire.

My dad got up at 5 or 6 a.m. six days a week for 40-plus years for his job. When he got older and started talking about his upcoming retirement, I worried a little bit that having his internal clock programmed that way for so long would make him one of those Happy Chef guys who would wake up at 3:30 a.m. I can’t remember my dad ever calling himself “a morning person,” but if he was, immediately upon retirement, he was able to sleep until 9 a.m. almost every morning. This development comforted me in that he was able to relax. It also proved it’s apparently possible to convincingly pose as a morning person for years, even decades, even if you are not an actual morning person.

Many successful people in two worlds I pay attention to, running and writing, are proponents of rising early to train, or write, respectively. It’s easy to look around and lose heart when all the examples you see are people like Ernest Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, or what feels like an overwhelming majority of high-performing athletes, who are up before the sunrise to crank out words or miles first thing, while they’re fresh. Whenever I can, though, I cite the examples of people like Cheryl Strayed, who has smashed out multiple bestselling books without espousing the Hemingway/Murakami routine of getting up at an ungodly hour of the morning and writing for eight hours, or Coree Woltering, a record-setting pro ultrarunner who does not get up early to train.

[Original comic from We The Robots]

These people and others like them, are creative and endurance sports heroes who show us there’s more than one way to be successful, and that way can begin sometime after 6 a.m., or sometimes after 9 a.m., and that “first thing in the morning” maybe doesn’t have a set time. And I will go forth guided by their example, taking solace that there are great people who like to sleep late as much as I do.

I will also probably ignore the fact that I wrote the bulk of the notes for the idea for this piece while waiting for coffee to brew on a morning I got up way earlier than usual to go spring skiing.

Thanks for reading.
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